Part III: A New American Reality

Art Dealer, Curator and Writer Charles Guice expands his commentary from Nueva Luz volume 17:1, Transforming Destiny Into Awareness: The Photographs of Baldomero Fernandez, Thomas Holton and Alex Leme.  In this edition, Charles describes the work of Alex Leme and divulges the history of the landscape that Leme captures in photographs. This is the third blog post in a five part series. Read part 2 of this series here and part 1 here.

Transforming Destiny Into Awareness: A New American Reality

Alex Leme Mr. Diworth Before Church, 2011
Alex Leme
Mr. Diworth Before Church, 2011. (© Copyright Alex Leme. All rights reserved.)

The enduring legacy of the pioneering photographers Walker Evans, Robert Frank and Joel Meyerowitz is evidenced in the work of a new generation of artists: Baldomero Fernandez, Thomas Holton and Alex Leme. Capturing images that eschew explanation in words, their photographs of a new American reality seek to transform destiny into awareness.

Alex Leme’s current series, Small Town: Portraits of a Disappearing America, documents a rapidly vanishing part of the American landscape: the small, rural town. Located 76 miles northeast of Little Rock and noted for being the site of the largest Civil War battle in Woodruff County, Cotton Plant, Arkansas was settled in 1820. The town, which was originally called Richmond, was incorporated in 1887 and eventually became a thriving commercial center. Warehouses and cotton gins brought jobs to Cotton Plant, and an extension of the Brinkley and Batesville Railroad line led to the development of the town’s timber and woodworking industry in 1908.

The town was also celebrated for its vibrant and influential black community. Sister Rosetta Tharpe, a singer, songwriter and guitarist who performed secularized gospel music, was born there in 1913. Second only to Mahalia Jackson in popularity, Rosetta was renowned for her flamboyant style and showmanship, which served as an early influence on singers such as Elvis Presley, Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis.

Alex Leme Tyler, Trace, Austin and Adam 2009
Alex Leme
Tyler, Trace, Austin and Adam, 2009. (© Copyright Alex Leme. All rights reserved.)

Ravaged by the Depression, Cotton Plant’s first water and sewage system was built in 1935 as part of the Works Project Administration, which brought jobs back into the region. After a second decline during World War II, the city’s prosperity rebounded, reaching its peak population of 1,838 in 1950.

As businesses began to falter in the 1960s, Cotton Plant’s population declined. When Alex Leme began photographing there in 2010, the town’s population had fallen to 649.

Born in Brazil in 1978, Leme studied business in London, attending the University of Westminster before moving to San Francisco to pursue a career in corporate finance. But a lifelong passion for photography eventually led him to abandon the profession and to move to Arkansas, where he studied art history at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.

For more than two years, Leme has photographed extensively in and around Cotton Plant. Attracted by the unique characteristics of the nonmetropolitan community, as well as its role in shaping a part of the American identity, Leme’s photographs have served to document Cotton Plant’s past as well as its future.

Alex Leme Fish Market, 2010
Alex Leme
Fish Market, 2010. (© Copyright Alex Leme. All rights reserved.)

Much like Evans’ from some seventy years beforehand, Leme’s images of rural Arkansas, a mix of portraiture and landscape, are largely unsentimental. In Tyler, Trace, Austin and Adam, he photographs a group of teenage boys against a classroom wall.

Despite the debris at their feet and the holes in the walls behind them, the boys appear relaxed and at ease. With their iPods, loose-fitting jeans, baseball caps and hoodies, they could be anywhere in the country. Yet the camouflage jackets and gumboots easily place them in a more rural setting, and by photographing the boys in an abandoned school, Leme offers a record of the town as it once was and as it now is.

Alex Leme Celia with Meemaw, 2010 (© Copyright Alex Leme. All rights reserved.)
Alex Leme
Celia with Meemaw, 2010 (© Copyright Alex Leme. All rights reserved.)

He evidences Cotton Plant’s fading prosperity again in Fish Market. The hand-painted sign suggests that even in business, the market was hardly thriving, one of the many shuttered long before the gas station next door.

In Celia with Meemaw, Leme shares a contemplative middle-aged woman consoling a fussing child clutched tightly on her lap. They sit on a rope swing amidst a yard littered with lawn tools and decoys. But his subjects, unlike the Arkansans captured in the photographs of the 1930s, do not appear forlorn or despairing. Have they been captured reflecting on their lives or have they simply become inured to the reality of their situation?

Next, Part IV: A Disappearing America

Previously, Part II: This Crazy American Sensation

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